Back Story

cross blogTime for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing teacher Sydney Smith and I discuss back story. It turns into a very public mentoring session!

SYDNEY –
Back story is that part of a character’s history that explains why they do the things they do in the present of the novel. Back story, when used properly, deepens and enriches a character and our understanding of them.

backstory 1Back story can be introduced or gestured to in a variety of ways. My favourite is when the drama in the present of the novel replays a drama in the character’s past. The character got it wrong back then. They made the wrong decisions and lost something, a relationship usually, that was of enormous value to them. The present of the story is their chance to replay that ancient drama and get it right. For example, in The Killing Lessons, Saul Black’s terrific debut crime novel, Valerie Hart, San Francisco police detective, was almost destroyed by a case she was working on three years ago. This was the abduction, torture and murder of a teenage girl. Valerie was so traumatised that she ruined the relationship that mattered most to her, with Nick Blaskovitch. Three years later, another man is abducting, torturing and murdering women. In particular, he has kidnapped Claudia, an Englishwoman working illegally in the country. Valerie has the chance to replay that old drama and this time rescue the woman. In addition, Nick has come back into her life, he has forgiven her and offers her a chance to start again.

But these replays don’t go smoothly. The killer is hard to find, and someone on her team is trying to wreck any chance she has of getting back together with Nick. The important thing to note in this replay is that you don’t have to go into a lot of detail with the back story. All you need to do is give enough information for the reader to understand this is a replay drama and the present of the novel will do the rest.

JENNY –
backstory 2Well, this is certainly a salient topic for me. I’m halfway through my new manuscript, and am dealing with the fraught issue of back story. How to introduce it? How much is too much, and how soon is too soon? I want to add in my character Taj’s history, and significant events that happened to him before the start of the book. The story behind the story, so to speak. Introducing it subtly and seamlessly is hard. Too often I’ve seen writers fall prey to the dreaded information dump. Big slabs of history slow stories and bore readers.

There are four main ways to add back story. By flashback (a worthy blog topic by itself, I think, Sydney), by dialogue, by recollections or by a narrative summary of the past. This last one is telling, not showing, but it’s the way I’m currently doing it―drip-feeding instalments of my character’s history. I’m unsure about it. The big reveal, showing the connection of past with present, will happen with dialogue―a deep and meaningful between my two main characters. But I want to lead up to it with a few short passages of exposition, scattered through previous chapters. What do you think, Sydney?

SYDNEY –
It can be tricky to know the best way to deal with a complex back story. Some writers think there are hard and fast rules about it―no flashbacks, for example. I tend to think a novel will have its own ideas about how best to introduce back story. You just have to listen to what it’s telling you.

But if the novel isn’t speaking intelligibly on the subject, the best thing to do is try out different ways of doing it and see which one works best. You don’t have to get it right the first time.

backstory 3You and I have talked about Taj, Jenny. It seems to me his back story is vitally important to the reader’s understanding of this character, why he’s ended up where he has and why he has the special gift he possesses―a gift that has an enormous impact on the other main characters in the story. Since he’s isolated in the first chapters and unable to tell his back story to Kim, the main protagonist, then the story has to step in and tell it in the form of flashbacks. Yes, it is a topic all by itself. The clue to doing flashbacks well is to tell a parallel story through them, one with a protagonist who has a goal to pursue and a problem to overcome. It seems to me that you’ve got some of this with Taj. Making the flashbacks tell a story will hook the reader in. That’s what stories are meant to do. If it doesn’t, then I suggest the problem is with the hook, not with the story itself.

I think writers can get tangled up with the idea that back story happened at a time before the present of the story opens, and therefore, that it has only a tenuous link with the present. It’s true that it does take place outside the time scheme of the main plot. But if the back story is too big to be dealt with in a bit of exposition here and there, then you need to approach it in a different way.

If you think about it, when a novel has several POVs, each of those POVs tells a story. Put all these stories together and you get a complex novel. For example, The Killing Lessons uses several POVs: that of ten-year-old Nell, of Angelo, a man grieving for the loss of his wife, Valerie Hart, a detective on a serial murder case, Xander, the killer himself, and Claudia, to name most, though not all of them. The story doesn’t slow down when it shifts POV. The reader is vitally engaged with all of them. All these POVs has a story to reveal, and all are loosely connected one way or another to the main plot, the hunt for a serial killer. A big back story that can’t be summarised in a bit of exposition is like that―it’s part of the tapestry of the whole novel, it’s connected to the main plot, it involves one, sometimes, more, of the important players in the larger story.

So when a writer has a big back story to reveal, the first thing to do is think of it not as a problem but as a storyline. There might be a problem with your back story, Jenny, but the problem isn’t that it’s back story. The problem is structural. Where do you place the scenes before the big reveal?

Also, because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, Jenny, try not to think you have to do a big reveal. You don’t. You can write the scenes, place them in the order you think works best, and see where that gets you. Nothing is set in stone at this stage. You’re still working through the first draft. Allow yourself to experiment. If after you’ve done that you still think a big reveal is important, then you’ve got everything you need in order to bring it about. All you have to remember is that Taj’s back story must obey the rules of front stories―that is, they have to show a protagonist working on a problem in pursuit of their goal.

As a mentor, I get a lot of people telling me they don’t know how to do a thing―how to weave in different POVs, for example, how to shift time levels. The problem isn’t really of craft. The problem is that the writer tells themselves, I can’t do this. Or they tell themselves that what they want to do breaks the rules of narrative, but they know they have to do it. Putting in a lot of back story is supposed to break the rules of narrative. It doesn’t. All you have to do is change the way you think about it and you’ll find a solution.

JENNY –
Wow, Sydney, that is such fantastic counsel! I don’t have a problem with Taj’s back story. The way I’m weaving it in works. My problem is just as you say―I’m concerned it breaks, or at least stretches, the rules of narrative. Taj has a fabulous story to tell. Instead of second-guessing myself, it’s time to get on with telling that story the best way I know how. I’ll evaluate my method later.

Thank you so much, Sydney. I feel completely liberated by your advice. Guess that’s what good mentoring is all about. Who would have thought I’d learn so much from my own post! 🙂

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The Magical Middle

cross blogTime for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing mentor Sydney Smith and I discuss a novel’s mid-point.

JENNIFER –
I’m approaching the middle of my new manuscript, although still a few thousand words away. Since reading Sydney Smith’s wonderful new book, The Architecture Of Narrative, I’ve been giving a lot more thought than usual to structure. So many writing gurus emphasise the significance of the magical midpoint. James Scott Bell, in his clever book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, calls it the mirror moment, when the main character looks at himself, and takes stock.  What kind of person is he? What is he becoming? How must he change in order to achieve his goals?

Humphrey BogartMy favourite film example of this is Casablanca with the fabulous Humphrey Bogart. At the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s bar after closing. Rick is drunk and bitter, remembering how Ilsa left him in Paris. Ilsa tries to explain, pleads with him to understand, but Rick essentially calls her a whore. She leaves in tears. Rick, full of self-disgust, puts his head in his hands, thinking, ‘What have I become?’ Will he stay a selfish drunk, or regain his humanity? This goes to the central theme of the narrative, and the second half of the film answers that question.

Alexandra Sokoloff  calls the midpoint the Call to Action, or Point of No Return. It heralds a major shift in the story, and is one of the most important scenes in any book or film. Something huge might be revealed. Something might go disastrously wrong. A ticking clock might be introduced, heightening the suspense. This fits in well with James Scott Bell’s analysis. In Casablanca, Ilsa reveals something huge at the midpoint―that she found out her husband, Viktor Lazlo, was still alive. This information leads Rick to a moment of self-reflection, then locks him into a course of action, thus linking the external and internal conflicts.

SYDNEY –
A of N Cover
The midpoint of a novel can be a powerful place where change happens. In Pride and Prejudice, the midpoint is the chapter where Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth and she rejects him, citing his pride and arrogance, his interference in her sister’s romance with Bingley, and his cruelty to Wickham as her reasons for rejecting him. That propels him into writing the letter in which he reveals the truth about Wickham but admits to meddling in Bingley’s business. That in turn leads Elizabeth to realize she’s been prejudiced toward Darcy, which had blinded her to the truth about Wickham. And it leads Darcy to modify his behaviour toward others. That’s a powerful about-face for both of them, and a vital hinge. All that follows is a consequence of that. It’s interesting to note that this hinge is also the most memorable part of this time-honoured novel.

Gregg Hurwitz, thriller writer extraordinaire, uses the midpoint in his novel, Don’t Look Back (dull title but don’t be fooled―it’s amazing!). Eve Hardiman has lost her nerve in life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She gives up the low-paid nursing job she loves and takes a highly-paid post with an insurance company, turning down applications for medical treatment by seriously ill people. She goes on a holiday in a distant outpost in Mexico, and for the first part of the novel, she collects clues that point to the mysterious disappearance of Teresa Hamilton, and hands them to others to deal with. Then smack in the middle of the novel, something happens. A member of the holiday party is seriously injured. Eve takes charge of the situation and the threat to all their lives, and she doesn’t let up until she’s destroyed the villain. High-octane is not the word for it.

Lesser novels can employ the midpoint effectively, too, though in a different way. Philip Pullman uses it in his Sally Lockhart mysteries. For the first half of each novel, questions pile up. After the midpoint, they’re resolved one by one.

JENNIFER –
All these examples show just how crucial the midpoint really is. The sagging middle is a frequent trap for novice, and not-so novice writers. A lot of brainstorming is usually put into the start of a story, and to the climax, but the middle is neglected. It meanders, becomes boring, and loses the reader’s attention. As a manuscript assessor Sydney, you must have had a lot of experience with this all-too-common problem.

SYDNEY –
Don't Look BackThe thing to understand is that, if a story sags in the middle, it’s weak at the start. The weakness is the lack of a character flaw in the protagonist. In many, many examples of the midpoint, the critical moment is the protagonist’s realization of their character flaw. When Eve recognizes that she lost her nerve, that’s the moment she gets it back. The midpoint in Casablanca is the moment when Rick realizes his character flaw―his bitterness over Ilsa. This kind of self-knowledge always leads to a dramatic change in direction for the story because the protagonist is now able to change internally and act externally without the nagging hindrance of their character flaw.

To highlight my point by contrast, why is it that many, possibly most, series novels don’t employ the midpoint this way? Because the series hero will lose the very character flaw that drives him or her to do what they do. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is obsessed with catching murderers. But his obsession keeps him from connecting at a deep level with others. He’s single and can’t be with the woman he loves. His friendships are superficial. If he lost his obsession, he would no longer be driven to solve crimes. Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent is ashamed of his dyslexia. He is driven to compensate for it by solving crimes. If he lost his shame over his disability, he might become a more balanced human being, but he would lose the drive to compensate for it by being a super-duper crime-solver.

Look at the Sally Lockhart series: the midpoint is the hinge where the questions amassed in the first half begin to be answered. It’s cute. It’s obvious. It works. But it lacks that power-pack oomph that comes from a midpoint resting on the protagonist’s recognition of their character flaw.

JENNIFER –
Love these examples Sydney. They illustrate the importance of mid-points and character flaws in such a practical way. I’ll be sure to keep this discussion in the front of my mind as my manuscript grows.

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RWA Pitch Program

Get Fresh in 15The annual RWA conference is rolling round again (21st – 23rd August), the largest professional publishing conference in Australia. This year promises to be the best ever, which is particularly good for me, because it will be held in my home state of Victoria. It provides unique networking opportunities for writers, editors and agents, as well as a speaker line-up including Anita Heiss and Graeme Simsion. The program features a wide range of workshops designed for writers at every stage of their career and publishing journeys. Get Fresh in 15 is the theme for Melbourne, and it will build on Melbourne’s strong literary culture through partnerships with Melbourne Writers Festival and Writers Victoria.

Brumby's CoverI received my big publishing break through the Pitch Program at an earlier RWA conference. My pitch of Brumby’s Run to a commissioning editor has led to five Penguin contracts so far. This fantastic program is being offered again, with a stunning range of editors and agents. It offers one of the few chances that aspiring writers have to get face to face with key publishing industry professionals. And the opportunity isn’t purely for romance writers. A wide variety of manuscripts are being sought. International literary agent Courtney Miller-Callihan is looking for general women’s fiction, historical fiction and young adult. Publisher Martin Green of Pantera Press is open to submissions in all genres, particularly commercial women’s fiction. Publisher Rebecca Saunders of Hachette is busy building a commercial fiction list, and wants to see all categories of popular fiction. And my own agent, Clare Forster of Curtis Brown, is looking for adult fiction, young adult fiction and non-fiction for mainstream publishers. Check out the amazing line-up here.

On-line registration for the Pitch Program opened on 1st June and will close on 30th June 2015 at 9pm. If you will have a suitable manuscript completed in time, why not have a go? You’ve nothing to lose, and I’m living proof that a conference pitch can lead to a publishing contract. I’ll do a post on pitch tips and etiquette prior to the conference, so stay tuned …

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Narrative Voice

Narrative Voice 1I’m thirty thousand words into a new project. This is typically the point for me where a novel starts to find its feet, and this time is no different. The characters are becoming real to me, finding their own voices.

In my view, there is nothing more mysterious in this writing game than the development of a character’s narrative voice. This isn’t necessarily the same as the author’s own voice, although it can be. I researched some definitions. Wikipedia says this:

‘The narrative voice describes how the story is conveyed: for example, by “viewing” a character’s thought processes, reading a letter written for someone, retelling a character’s experiences.’

The Editor’s Blog puts it like this.

‘Narrative voice is the look and feel and sound of story as it’s relayed through writer, narrator, and viewpoint character. So, yes, it’s tone and style. But it’s also attitude.  And it’s focus—what does the narrator point out and what is ignored?  And it includes the method through which that look and feel and sound are conveyed to the reader—through thoughts or letters or the direct report of events. And it includes the distance and relationship between narrator and the people and events he is watching. (A narrator may be aloof and observational or up close in the thick of the action.)’

Narrative Voice 2So … trying to define and explain narrative voice, is a bit like trying to nail down a shadow. Nevertheless, a point-of-view character must have one. It’s not helpful to regard voice development as a magical thing, that fortuitously appears in a puff of purple smoke.

My work-in-progress is in third person, with two viewpoint characters narrating the story. They come complete with their own baggage and biases, strength and flaws. How can I convincingly speak for them? How to prevent them from all sounding the same – or worse still – from all sounding like me? Syntax and diction are important. Devices like verbal tics and idiosyncratic turns of phrase are useful, as long as they’re not overdone. (Have you ever tried to make sense of Joseph’s Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights?) However these are purely adjustments made around the edges. They don’t by themselves create a distinctive voice.

Some people write detailed summaries in order to get to know their characters. They know what their characters had for breakfast last Sunday. They know them better than their own wives and husbands. I’m not one of those writers.

Narrative Voice 3On reflection, what I find most useful is to discover one essential truth about a character – their driving force, their deepest fear, their wound perhaps. Who, in their heart of hearts, do they believe themselves to be? Are they misguided? We all have a fundamental, core belief about ourselves that usually remains hidden. Take Clare in Currawong Creek, for example. She mistakenly believes that career success is the only path to self-worth. The driving force for Quinn in Turtle Reef, is the guilt he feels at not measuring up in his father’s eyes, even though his father has feet of clay.

At thirty thousand words in my new manuscript, the two main characters have come to life. I understand the central truths about them, and their unique voices are finally ringing loud and clear.

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Foreshadowing

cross blogIt’s the time of the month for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, author and writing mentor Sydney Smith and I discuss the literary technique of foreshadowing.

SYDNEY:
Foreshadowing is the seeding of minor precursors to some greater event in a story. This is how believability is created. If you want the reader to believe an event in your story that might not seem altogether credible, foreshadow it and the reader will believe it. Even if the major event is already believable, foreshadowing will draw the reader in and make it even more convincing.

Snow FlowerFor example, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in Old China, where every aspect of life is arranged according to strict rules and customs. The narrator, Lily, has a special friendship with Snow Flower, one that was arranged especially to improve Lily’s marriage prospects. In fact, this friendship is dearer to Lily than the wealthy marriage she enters into as a girl of seventeen. But at the climax of the story, Lily humiliates Snow Flower out of jealous vengeance, and she loses the one relationship in her life that matters more to her than any other. Without foreshadowing, this climax might have been unbelievable, since Lily loves Snow Flower. Why would she do such a thing to the woman who matters most to her? Lisa See foreshadows it in a confrontation between Lily and her mother, one that reveals her vengeful spirit. She acts spitefully in this confrontation, and thus, her greater spitefulness in humiliating Snow Flower in the climax is foreshadowed. We have seen her behave vengefully once before. So at the climax, when the story needs us to believe it without question, we do thanks to foreshadowing.

JENNY:
Foreshadowing 1I see foreshadowing as a two-part affair―first the hint (or hints), then the payoff. If a jewellery store is to be robbed, there might be a suspicious customer in the day before. If a man is to leave his wife, he might be reluctant to make holiday plans. Keeping the hint and payoff firmly linked in my mind, will make the setup more straightforward. Sometimes I write myself notes about it. And the more significant the payoff event, the earlier I like to plant hints.

As a reader, I always love when crucial events are deftly foreshadowed. That Ahh, I get it! moment is immensely satisfying. The classics are full of them. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men, the killing of Candy’s old dog hints at the later killing of Lennie. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the witches and their prophecies to foreshadow events. They warn that ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet complains to her nurse ‘My grave is like to be my wedding-bed.’ And in the wonderful Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider explains to Wilbur that all living things eventually die. This foreshadows the main plot conflict, which is saving Wilbur from the slaughterhouse. Charlotte weaves a web over the barn door with a message that startles the humans into sparing Wilbur’s life. In the process of spinning her web, Charlotte expends all her energy and dies, just as she had hinted to Wilbur at the beginning of the story.

foreshadowing 2I will often read a novel containing clever foreshadowing a second time, in order to fully appreciate the author’s skill. But as a writer, I find it a fine line to tread. Too blatant a hint might give the game away. Too subtle, and readers might not make the connection at all. These days I err on the side of subtle. Readers are clever and sophisticated creatures! Sometimes writers forget this.

Of course the wonderful thing about foreshadowing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time. It’s rare to nail it in a first draft. I’ve often gone back through a manuscript and added clues. That’s when a good chapter summary document – a road map – comes into its own. Sometimes too, my editor suggests I either tone down or ramp up the foreshadowing. It takes a lot of practice.

SYDNEY:
foreshadowing 3The funny thing about foreshadowing is that if done well, it happens all the way through. EVERYTHING is foreshadowed. You realise this if you study closely the favourite novels that you read again and again. I’ve been studying Snow Flower with one of my students and we keep stumbling across instances of foreshadowing. It becomes the cement that glues a narrative together. It makes the story stronger, more solid. It putties in the gaps.

Foreshadowing is not to be confused with predictability, though. Predictability arises out of clichéd characters who act in clichéd ways. Foreshadowing is the trail of breadcrumbs you follow, not realising they’re breadcrumbs. You think the forest is thick with trees, that the way stumbles right and left. But in fact there is a path, and that path is foreshadowing.

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The Moral Universe In fiction.

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat about the craft of fiction.

Today, writing guru Sydney Smith and I talk about the moral universe in stories. (Fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson will be back on board sometime in the New Year)

 

SYDNEY –
Every writer creates their own moral universe in their fiction, even when they don’t realise they’re doing it. When the goodies win and the baddies are sent to prison, or killed, or otherwise defeated, that is evidence of a moral universe at work, one The Husband's Secretcreated by the writer. I recently read The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty, in which a man has kept a dark secret for twenty-eight years. When his wife discovers it, she decides to keep it, too. Because of this moral transgression, a terrible accident occurs in which their daughter, Polly, only six years old, loses her arm. The reader is meant to understand that this is the couple’s punishment for keeping that harmful secret. The accident wouldn’t have happened if the husband had confessed to the police many years ago. Liane chose to punish this couple in this way. The characters are Catholics; the husband has been in permanent Lent ever since he did the deed that had to be kept a secret. And so the punishment has a whiff of the church about it. Liane wants the reader to understand that. This is her moral universe, and though it does carry the odour of myrrh and brimstone, it is one she has created.

Jane Austen created a more original moral universe in her fiction. The greatest sin is doing harm to others through selfishness. Again and again we see destructive Mansfield Parkselfishness being punished in social ways. For example, in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram marries Mr Rushworth for money and commits adultery with Henry Crawford. Her sin is exposed and she is ostracised. Henry Crawford is also punished by losing Fanny Price, the moral agent in the novel who could have saved him. In Jane Austen, a good life is first and foremost one that does no harm.

I have to admit that I find this business of the moral universe interesting yet problematic. I’m not all that interested in the straightforward universe where the goodies win and the baddies lose in spades, although of course I read fiction that displays this kind of moral equation all the time. But when it comes to creating my own moral universe, the one that operates in my fiction, I find myself hogtied by a superabundance of sympathy for my characters, even those who do bad things.

JENNY –
I also have a great deal of sympathy for villains. Fifteen years as a foster-parent and working in legal aid has convinced me that nobody is evil. Psychopaths and sociopaths are made, not born―their generally tragic back-stories make them who they are. But however they ended up that way, some people are bad, and we all know how to spot them. Lack of empathy and remorse; irresponsibility, selfishness, greed and cruelty. Cheaters, liars, fraudsters, abusers―I’m happy to label these character traits as bad. Of course good people can also display these traits. It’s a matter of degree. Writers rely on their readers sharing this common understanding.

Writing the breakout novelSuper literary agent and author Donald Maas emphasises the significance of a moral universe in his book, Writing The Breakout Novel.

‘Novels are moral. In fact, all stories convey society’s underlying values, whether they are danced around a campfire or packaged in sleek trade paperbacks. Stories are the glue that holds together our fragile human enterprise.’

He believes that readers want their values validated, but not in a simplistic, moralising way.

‘They may not want to be converted, but they do want to be stretched. They want to feel that at the end of the book their views were right, but they were arrived at after a struggle. A skilful breakout novelist can spin a tale so persuasive that at the end, the reader feels the underlying point was one with which they always have agreed, even though they may have never before  considered it.’

I love this, and always keep it in mind when I’m writing. Donald Maas taught me not to be afraid of my own moral compass. Instead, I let it fuel the narrative. Hopefully, that passion will come through the pages and grip my readers. They’ll care about the characters, suffer with them, hate them and love them. So my advice to all budding storytellers is to honour your convictions, whatever they may be. Let them power your story, challenge your readers, and make your story worth the telling. Care, a lot, about the subject of your writing and it will show.

SYDNEY –
Heavens above, I feel like a wimp after those bracing comments, Jenny!

I guess this points to the difference between a good writer and one who doesn’t quite make it. A good writer loves their villains, their antagonists, their baddies, while also understanding that, in order to make the moral point, they have to punish them in some way. What that punishment is depends on the kind of novel being written. The way Liane Moriarty punished her husband and wife was appropriate to the kind of novel she wrote, commercial women’s fiction. I really understood why the wife decided to keep her husband’s secret―if she didn’t, she feared her family would fall apart. She believed her family’s integrity, its ability to retain its emotional and psychological shape, depended on the presence of her husband. Liane implied that there is a higher need than keeping a family together, and that is the moral duty owed to those who suffered because of his dark deed. She got us to this point by creating enormous empathy for the wife, whose POV was privileged over that of her husband. That empathy made the punishment seem all the more devastating.

Anna KareninaStories try to teach us about right and wrong, good and bad. Many of them do this in a straightforward way. I personally prefer fiction that delineates the moral problem in more subtle ways. Is Anna Karenina wrong for placing her personal need for sexual love ahead of her child’s need for his mother and her duty to her husband? Or is society wrong for creating customs that allow a woman to pursue her personal desires, so long as she does it discreetly, under the auspices of hypocrisy? I read in an introduction to that great novel that Tolstoy first created a coarse and unlikeable Anna. Over time he modulated her into the sympathetic woman we know. He did this because he understood that a coarse Anna won’t carry the moral point as effectively as a charming, likeable Anna. When she throws herself under the train, we feel the horror of her despair because we loved her, not because she did a selfish thing. At the same time we understand that she had to pay in some way for what she did. Yet there is no sense of resolution in her death―at least, there isn’t for me. The love between Levin and Kitty balances out the story by showing us what is right by confirming our own feeling that love survives best when it does no harm.

Which gets me no nearer understanding how to create and enact my own moral universe!

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at Set Your Book Free.

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An Original Idea + Book Giveaway

story ideas 3I’m envious of other writers who have umpteen story ideas swirling around in their head at once. I was talking to an author friend the other day about getting inspiration. She has twenty different story outlines in her bottom drawer. ‘I can look at the headlines in a newspaper,’ she said, ‘and get three or four ideas for a novel then and there. My problem is that once I’m 150 pages into a novel, my mind is already ranging ahead to the next project.’ I looked at her askance and made some unfavourable comparisons. When I’m 150 pages into a novel I still have no idea what my next project will be about!

Story ideas 1But being a novelist means writing new books, so an idea is kind of essential. It’s the foundation for your new story, and I’m always overjoyed when it finally comes to me. I don’t mean a fully realised plot –  It could just be a theme, or a main incident. It could be a character, or scene. A line of dialogue or setting. It’s simply that first kernel of an idea, and for me it’s my guiding light. Everything else might change, but not this.Then I think about my characters, who emerge pretty quickly at this point. Who are they at the beginning and who will they be at the end? A little thought at this early stage ensures well-developed character arcs, and saves a lot of hit-or-miss writing. By this time a theme will be emerging, and I like to have it in mind before I start. It will keep the book heading in a consistent direction, and add emotional depth.

Story Ideas 2Then I play the ‘what if?‘ game. Your initial idea might be a selfish man decides to turn his life around. Then play what if. What if the man is a cat burglar? Better. What if he wants to put stolen stuff back? What if his plans are frustrated by a detective that is getting too close? What if he needs to put stuff back in that detective’s own house? The original idea is getting fleshed out.

Now, whenever I read a book or watch a film, I try to work out what was the original idea that the creator had. Babe – what if a pig was raised by sheep-dogs? The Verdict – what if an alcoholic lawyer took on a hopeless case against the best attorneys in the land? Gone With The Wind – what if it fell to a spoilt southern belle to defend her family’s plantation during the Civil War? The Wizard Of Oz – what if a little girl is stuck in a strange land and can’t get home? This game is fun, try it. It can also give you the tagline for your book, distilling the narrative down to its essentials. What if a repentant cat burglar decided to put everything back? Good idea. It’s probably been done before, but each telling of a story will be different.

Anyway, I’ve got an idea for my next story, and Penguin have given it the nod. Now all I have to do is write it!

To celebrate my new contract, and reaching 40,000 views on this blog, I’m giving away 2 copies of Billabong Bend. (If you’d rather another one of my books just say.)Thank you to all my readers. To go in the draw, just comment on this post. (Aust and NZ only) Winners announced 22nd December.

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The Author Unmasked

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about how authors must remain hidden.

KATH
Possibly the most important job an author has is to remain invisible. Expose yourself through weak writing and the reader will be dragged away from the world you’ve spent so much time creating, straight into your office. Even a typo or printing error can cause a reader to think about poor editing instead of that desperate, blood-deprived vampire. Here are a few other ways authors (and lazy editors) can expose themselves:
– Trying Too Hard. This is a common mistake of beginner writers (and, ahem, not so beginner). Trying to find sexy or poetic ways to express a thought or action, often with the idea that it’s “fresh”. The mouth seems to cop much of it with smiles teasing the corners of mouths, sighs and moans escaping trembling lips. It’s made worse when those lurking smiles/sighs/moans keep popping up in the same fashion throughout the story. If you can’t come up with something truly fresh, try instead: He sighed. He smiled. He moaned. I’ve learned this is the most effective way to convey to the reader a sense of what’s going on, without losing them to another author.
Author exposed - cliches– Not Trying Hard Enough. Clichés! I found one in my current work-in-progress: “She stared at him with a look of horror.” We do get it, but it’s so dull, uninspired, overused, that we glide right by without getting the full impact of what the author’s trying to show (because, of course, we always show, not tell, don’t we, authors?) How about instead: “She stared at him, hand at her throat like it was Dracula, not a tennis player, standing in her kitchen.” (Excuse me while I adjust my WIP.)
Inappropriate Scene Setting. A high-octane moment is not the right time to tell us about the flowering jacaranda in the front garden, unless that’s where the body’s buried. The moment might be tense just in the narrator’s mind―thoughts about a husband’s infidelity or a missing child. Having the smell of a freshly-baked cake lovingly assault her nostrils* right then, simply for the sake of placing the reader, is probably a mistake. It interrupts or brings the tense moment to an abrupt halt which is NOT what we want to do, right? (*see purple prose below.)
Purple Prose. Too many nouns with adjectives, verbs with adverbs, adjectives with adverbs―argh! When we think we’re adding to a scene, really we’re weakening it with overdone prose. “The gleaming white moon rose slowly over the glistening, mirror-like lake while nearby tiny lambs frolicked joyfully amongst sun-kissed daisies in grassy, green meadows…” Quite apart from the wrongness of lambs frolicking at night, we know the moon is white and rises slowly, and we know what lambs look like and what they do; we don’t need to be told in such flowery detail. This kind of narrative is tedious for the reader, who will think the author is showing off.
– Speaking of which … Showing Off The Results Of Your Research. Know what to use and when/how. In my novel, Monkey Business, I devoted a whole scene to a particularly interesting fact about jungle survival. It read like an instruction manual, thus exposing its silly author.

SYDNEY
Plot controlling character is one of the ways a writer can reveal themselves working the puppet strings behind the scenes of a story. It’s also one of the sneakiest ways to avoid conflict ever invented.

Most writers think about important plot events before they write them. They will know some before they start writing the story, and they will imagine some as they write it. That isn’t necessarily the problem. Issues arise when the writer thinks about how to get these plot events to come about. An experienced writer will create characters who are able to bring these events into being. They will understand whether these events are doable by these characters or not. They will jettison any that are impossible logically or psychologically. Or, more often, their characters will jettison them. When characters come to life, they decide what they will do in pursuit of their goal. This is what it means when writers say their characters come to life and tell them what to write.

In fiction by new writers, this kind of situation doesn’t happen. Characters stick to the plot’s agenda like grim death, changing their personality as required, acting illogically, behaving as if they’ve got no agenda of their own, or not one they’re prepared to stick to. The plot is the dominant agent in the story. The plot decides what characters will do, and is ruthless in getting them to do it. It brooks no argument. It’s a tyrant.

This is a very different situation to characters creating plot, which is how it’s meant to be. If you look at it this way, plot becomes character in action. Characters shape the plot. Characters decide what will happen by pursuing their own agendas come what may, going after what they want with dogged determination, and dealing with opposition as it comes along. So here’s a little example of plot controlling character:

Shay is investigating the death of Marcus. He was shot in the back of the head, behind his left ear. The cops have ruled suicide. But Shay doesn’t believe it.

This is the first instance of plot controlling character: the cops ignore the obvious so that they can close the case. That gives Shay the chance to investigate.

Shay receives a note in her mailbox that tells her to go to 14 Garrod Street, Brunswick, where she will find something of interest. She gets there and is yanked inside by a ruffian with bad breath who tells her she’s too dangerous to stay alive. She’s been investigating the death of Marcus. ‘You should’ve accepted the police findings,’ he says as he straps Author exposed - hands tiedher wrists together with gaffer tape. He binds them in front of her, not behind her, leaves her ankles free, splashes petrol around the place and lights a match. As flames leap up the curtains, he whisks himself out of the house, leaving the door unlocked.

Again, this is plot controlling character. He’s tied her hands in front of her so that it’s easier for her to free herself. He’s left the front door unlocked so that, when she’s free, she can get out of the burning house without further difficulty. It might seem shockingly untenable, this whole situation, but believe me, I come across instances as blatant as this, even more blatant, of plot controlling character, every day of my mentoring life.

Not only is the situation unbelievable, but it’s avoided conflict. Yes, a man lured her to the house. That’s a conflict, since he wants to get rid of her and she wants to go on investigating the murder of Marcus. But he’s made it easy for her to escape. Making it hard for her to escape would involve levels of conflict the writer feels uncomfortable with. Then there are the cops and their decision that Marcus killed himself. If the forensic evidence supported suicide, it would be harder for the writer to figure out how to knock off Marcus in a way that looks like suicide but isn’t. Writing a novel involves the author in conflict as they wrestle with their characters and their own powers of invention. Plot controlling character minimises conflict for everybody, but especially for the writer.

Now look at the ruffian’s agenda. What is it? It seems to be that he wants to get rid of Shay so that the truth about Marcus’ death will never come out. But if he was committed to his agenda, wouldn’t he do his utmost to make sure Shay dies in the fire? How does it help his agenda if he makes it easy for her to escape? It doesn’t, but it helps the plot’s agenda. The plot wants Shay to escape and makes the ruffian forfeit his agenda in order to make it happen. I call this kind of character the uncommitted antagonist: he’s not committed to his agenda. Characters have to act out of who they are and what they want, even if that makes life hard for them, even if it makes life hard for the writer. The outcome of character commitment is compelling fiction.

JENNY
That’s a brilliant explanation of why the best stories are character-driven, Sydney! (Love the word ruffian.) And there are plenty of other ways that the author’s hand can reveal itself, giving readers an unwelcome reminder that they’re being spun a story. Telling, not showing is an obvious one. Inexperienced writers can become dictators, ordering us how to feel about their fictional world. Readers don’t like that. They like to come to their own conclusions. Saying that a character is scared or shy or happy robs the reader of Author unmasked - adverbsthat pleasure. Too many adverbs will have the same effect. Saying that the day is uncomfortably hot, or that a character is dangerously close to the cliff, reveals the lazy author behind the scenes. Readers must be able to assess for themselves how hot it is, or how dangerous a situation might be. As Anton Chekhov so famously put it, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

Then there’s flat out author intrusion, when the writer speaks directly to the reader under the flimsy guise of narrative or characters. Writers can unintentionally project themselves into stories because they haven’t created multidimensional, fully-formed fictional characters. Instead, they fall back on their own beliefs, opinions and ideas. I’ve been guilty of this myself. It’s easy to spot, once you know what you’re looking for. Are there certain words or phrases that seem out of place, that don’t fit the character? Does your character voice an opinion that has little to do with the actual story, but happens to coincide with your own beliefs?

Other examples of author intrusion relate to Sydney’s point about plot controlling character. Does your character have knowledge that she wouldn’t be expected to have? A humble salesgirl who just happens to be an expert in nuclear physics, or can miraculously disarm a bomb with a safety pin. Or have you done so much research on a particular subject that you want to squash it into the story, even though it doesn’t fit? Research should be like a floating iceberg, most of it invisible beneath the narrative surface. These kind of things stick out. The way to avoid the trap of author intrusion is simple. Always remember that your story belongs to your characters.

SYDNEY
Now I feel like I have to interrogate every word of my new WIP. But not at the moment. I’ve started the first draft of “Rosings”, a spin-off of Pride and Prejudice, which follows the adventures of Anne de Bourgh after her mother dies. (Am I allowed to say that?) First drafts should be allowed to be bad. It’s the next draft that has to be combed through for intrusions by the author. And here’s a final intrusion, one I never thought of before I started writing “Rosings”―if you sound a little bit like Jane Austen but not enough, or if you don’t sound like her at all. Whatever you decide in a spin-off of Jane Austen is going to come across as authorially intrusive.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

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The Mirror Moment

Write Your Novel From The MiddleI’m having a writing hiatus, in between books. But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about writing. Quite the contrary. I’m mulling and reading and plotting – dreaming up my next story. Part of this process involves reading some books on writing theory. My friend and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson has been singing the praises of James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From The Middle. I downloaded this little book onto my Kindle and guess what? Kath’s right! Here’s the blurb:

What’s the best way to write a “next level” novel? Some writers start at the beginning and let the story unfold without a plan. They are called “pantsers,” because they write by the “seat of the pants.” Other writers plan and outline and know the ending before they start. These are the “plotters.” The two sides never seem to agree with each other on the best approach.

But what if it’s not the beginning or the end that is the key to a successful book? What if, amazing as it may seem, the place to begin writing your novel is in the very middle of the story? I’m excited to tell you, that’s exactly where you’ll find it. I am truly jazzed about the technique I discovered. I’ve used it on every book of mine since, and have now set it out for you in this volume.

James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell

Bell argues that the mid-point of every effective narrative contains a mirror-moment – so called because the main protagonist figuratively looks in the mirror, takes stock of his/her life and decides which way to go. This is the perfect compromise between writing a detailed outline and writing the entire book by the seat of your pants. Once you’ve decided on that moment, you can write towards it or away from it, confident that your character arc will be in good shape. The book also contains basic structural advice, and some great examples of mirror moments from classic novels and films.

I’ve already decided on the pivotal mid-point moment for my new book – not the exact scene as such, but what I want my character to understand about herself in that scene. This mid-point is the heart of my story, and will set up both my ending and beginning. A brilliant but very simple concept. Write Your Novel From The Middle is only a short book, less than one hundred pages. But it’s a genuine game-changer. I’m going to search out more of Bell’s books.

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Power Of The Secret-Keeper

I’ve pretty much finished my latest novel, Turtle Reef, except for one last read through. That means I’m taking a blogging holiday this week. But never fear, I’m reblogging a terrific post from one of my favourite bloggers, Kristen Lamb. This post is on the power of secrets in fiction. I hope you enjoy it!